Raise or Fold:  Learning (From) Poker

Writing and playing poker as if they were activities worth doing well.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Let's Go To The Tape

In the middle of the chip-shipping insanity that was Saturday night’s 2/5 game, there was an incident that brought together several important lessons about playing live poker.

The hand went down between an average even-tempered player (ETP) and a Crasian* who had been up and down like a yo-yo with ADD, rebuying multiple times. The Crasian was playing any two pre-flop and then betting aggressively if he caught any piece of the board. ETP had been picking his spots and building a nice stack, remaining polite and calm in the wake of a couple of horrendous beats. Again, I can’t remember the exact nature of the action. But the upshot of the matter was that there was tremendous action on a very wet board, with the likelihood of a broadway straight being very high.

The hand went to showdown. ETP announced, “I have an ace,” and flashed it. There was an ace on the board, giving him top pair. The Crasian threw his hand on the table face up. He had paired the river card, which was a ten. He also had a jack. To the inattentive, it might have looked as if he had made a straight, but he had not.

The dealer started pushing the pot to the Crasian, and ETP mucked his hand. Another player and I looked at each other with a questioning glance.

I spoke up. “Why is the pair of tens getting the pot? ETP had a pair of aces.” The other player chimed in to say he had seen the ace as well.

All hell broke loose. Crasian was busily stacking the chips.

ETP says he showed his hand. Dealer didn’t see it, and says it wasn’t properly tabled. Both I and the other player allow as how we didn’t register ETP’s second card.

Everyone at the table suggests that, for the good of the game, it would be sportsmanlike to chop the pot, since there is no doubt that in fact ETP had the winning hand. Crasian starts yelling defensively about how he was cheated out of some other pot at some other game in some other casino and refuses to consider it.

ETP calls the floor and asks them to go to surveillance tape. At this point everyone at the table realizes that he’s doomed. There’s no way the tape is going to have captured him flashing the Ace. Unsurprisingly, the floor comes back and says the pot result stands.

Crasian, who clearly knew he was beat, manages to win the pot on a technicality along with the disrespect of everyone at the table. It will probably cost him money in the long run.

Lessons from this event:
  1. Table your hand.

  2. Read your hand, your opponent's hand, and the board carefully and accurately.

  3. Do not let go of your hand until the pot is awarded correctly.

  4. Do not expect the surveillance tape to capture the action with enough detail to make up for failures of observation by people actually at the table or for your own mistakes.

  5. Don’t be a douchebag.

*I feel a cringe of embarrassment using this stereotyping term, except for the fact that it is exceedingly accurate in describing a small subset of poker players.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

On Being Bad

Most mainstream religions frown on gambling.

There’s definitely something unholy about putting one’s (or, ideally, someone else’s) hard-earned money at risk — subject to the vagaries of chance — rather than to work. Should you be squandering the precious resources entrusted to you for mere entertainment? Furthermore, gambling just doesn’t seem like a godly activity; Einstein, for example, was offended by certain aspects of quantum theory, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Gamblers come in two flavors, the superstitious and the scientific. The first subscribe to the magical property of luck and the second ascribe to the propositions of probability. Those who wish to mix luck and religion find themselves in the dubious position of asking their Deity to help them be lucky (we may pause to recall the unseemly spectacle of competing prayer-wars at the final table of the 2007 WSOP Main Event). This is particularly awkward for those who believe that God has a master plan, and all is fore-ordained. What is it you’re praying for in that case? “Let me turn out to be the one predestined to win!”

Those who are die-hard probability fans may start to wonder where God is in the grand scheme of things. If it’s all chance, given enough time and the laws of physics, pretty much everything that can happen, will happen. Why bring God into it all? There may be no atheists in foxholes, but there are plenty at the poker table. (Believe me, run bad long enough and you will start to question the existence of a loving God.)

Poker, with it’s skill component, brings some further concerns into play. Now, in addition to the gambling, there’s the matter of using your presumably God-given talents to take other people’s money. Specifically, to take other people’s money by means of deception, aggression, and by taking advantage of their weaknesses. You are to feed on your opponents as the wolf feeds upon sheep. The apparent lack of sharp teeth and overt bloodshed should not mislead anyone: poker is a predatory pastime. This is not the stuff of saintly behavior.

The wish to exercise the cardinal virtues of compassion and generosity, the commendable impulse to heal the sick and nurture the helpless, the desire to educate and enlighten the ignorant, and the natural human tendency to bond and form groups for mutual aid — these are all deprecated to the point of being out-and-out liabilities when playing poker. Poker is a caricature of Darwinian competition, “nature red in tooth and claw,” survival of the fittest. It’s a bit like capitalism, except without the productivity part. It’s hard to see how this is a good thing.

Various people have tried, in my view completely without success of any kind, to make a case for poker having some socially redeeming value. The closest that I, personally, have ever been able to get is the notion that poker facilitates the redistribution of wealth from stupid people to smarter people. This seems like a pretty feeble proposition (on a factual basis) to begin with, and I’m not sure that it would represent much of a social good even if it were proven to be true. I see no evidence that people who are good at poker are, in fact, any more likely to do worthwhile things with money than their less-skilled counterparts.

Does boxing have any socially redeeming value? Two people get into a ring. There are certain rules that govern their behavior, which are intended to ensure that the fight is fair. The combatants bring differing levels of preparation, skill, stamina, experience, intelligence, aggression, discipline, and desire to the competition. And then they hit each other. A lot. Let’s face it: somebody is gonna get hurt.

It has always baffled me that some people find watching boxing to be entertaining, and I am stymied even more by the fact that there are people who actually like to box. I don’t like to see people fighting, and I really don’t like to see people hurt. (I especially abhor the idea of hitting or being hit, myself.) Then I wrote the previous paragraph, and now — although it still doesn’t appeal to me — I think I may have an idea why they enjoy it.

Poker is like boxing, without the physical part. The key to both activities is that the participants come to the table voluntarily. 1

When you climb into a boxing ring, you accept that you are going to get punched. Repeatedly. Hard. When you belly up to a poker table, you accept that everybody there is going to do his or her best to TAKE ALL YOUR MONEY. There are rules and referees, it’s not a free-for-all scrum. It is not the case that “anything goes.” If you don’t abide by the rules, you won’t be allowed to stay, and you may even be sanctioned. But within the magic circle of rope or felt, you are permitted to — nay, encouraged and rewarded for it! — exercise all your faculties to prevail. Hit as hard as you can, float and dodge, outwit and baffle. It may not be nice, but it cannot be described as unethical.

In a word: compete. Bring out your bad self and go medieval on their asses. As the teenage son of some dear friends asked drily the other night, over dinner, “You’re not going to trot out the catharsis argument, are you?”

(Smart kid. Let him write the damn book.)

Where was I?

I was raised to be a good girl. I was brought up to be nice. I was taught not to be selfish and to tell the truth. I wanted people to think well of me.

Enter the poker table and Enter the Dragon.

At the poker table I am not nice. I am utterly selfish. I am devious. I am aggressive. I am ruthless. I lie my ass off. I don’t care if people think well of me or not. In fact, if they think I’m stupid, it’s good. If they fear me, it’s good. If they like me, it’s good. I can work with whatever they think. At the poker table, I am not a good girl.

And that’s really, really good. It’s the thrill of defying a taboo. It’s satisfying, on the level of an inchoate itch that you didn’t even know required scratching until you dug in your fingernails for the first time. I can reinvent myself however I please. It’s fun.

But part of the reason it’s fun is because, on a very basic level, it’s safe. I’m playing poker. There are rules. It’s a game, not my whole life. And although, while playing poker, I may not be a good girl, I am always an honorable girl. My integrity remains intact, and it is important to me that others know and can rely on that.

I despite cheaters. They blur the boundary between the game and the rest of life in a destructive way; the “bad” that should be confined to the context of the game leaks out into the world, where it absolutely does not belong. That decompartmentalization is a breach of the poker-player’s social contract, and it undermines the very nature of the undertaking. It renders the game unconstrained, unsafe, and therefore not fun. In the context of a poker game, cheating is sociopathic behavior.

1 I set aside, here, the case of those addicted to gambling. This a topic that deserves separate consideration.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Day 7: A Secret Society

Are you on a bus or in a subway car? Look around. You'd be surprised how many of your fellow passengers are members.

In your office, if it's of any size, there are certainly at least a couple of them. If you don't belong to the secret society, you wouldn't even know that they sometimes hold meetings there, after the last workaholic has gone home.

How do they recognize one another, the members of this underground group? Sometimes it's an inside joke, certain words spoken in a special order, or phrases with a double meaning that outsiders wouldn't catch. But among the true initiates, more often it's the mention of a certain location, or the name of a guy (usually it's a guy), and the promise of an introduction.

You had better come into these groups carefully, selectively, and honorably. Because in many environments, the secret society is perceived as ~ well ~ not quite thoroughly legitimate. Its meetings may or may not be fully sanctioned by law. It's a secret society, because the revelation of membership might cause marital strife, consternation amongst one's fellow churchgoers, or concern in one's employer. It might. Or maybe not.

Above all, for the true believers, the hardcore practitioners, it's a secret society because they themselves are embarrassed to admit how important membership has become to them. There is a whiff both of shame and of covert pride. There are very few who bring an unmixed mind and a serene heart to their participation in this community.

And this holds especially true among the members of that particular lodge within the secret society of gamblers who call themselves poker-players.

In any fringe activity, even one as widespread as that of playing poker for money, personal reputation and group ethos end up being incredibly important. The greater the stakes and the more established the group, the more significant a role that both individual and collective responsibility for self-policing play. If you want to see old-fashioned personal integrity in action and as the governing principle in community membership, go hang out with a bunch of people who've played poker together for a long time.

You can bet that any new person coming into the group is going to very quickly be made aware of both the stated and unspoken rules that govern conduct in the community. The consequences for infractions vary among poker subcultures, but they start with overt cautioning, and escalate quickly to ostracization or ejection, and in some cases (extra-legal, of course, and not in my circles) quite dramatically and unpleasantly beyond.

There may be no honor among thieves, but there definitely is honor among poker-players. If they want to keep playing in a given community, that is.

For those who prefer to play in person rather than online and who don't have convenient access to a licensed casino or cardroom, the only options are home games (what counts as legal varies by jurisdiction, if permitted at all) or illegal formal or informal games (including highly organized and profit-making cardrooms). If you're looking for a game, networking is everything.

You need to network to find the game. You need to network in order to learn what kind of game it is, whether the other participants (both organizers and players) are trustworthy, and how to present yourself to the existing culture. If you do not already have a trusted network of fellow players, you are walking into these situations blind and unprepared, presuming you can find them at all.

And rest assured, one way or another your reputation will proceed you, so you'd better make sure you have a good one.

I care tremendously about my poker reputation; I consider it a vital asset and a key element to my long term success in the game. This is why I am scrupulous about playing by the rules, why I work hard to establish that my word is my bond, and why I am never, ever in the slightest bit tempted to cheat. No short-term gain is worth jeopardizing what a spotless reputation will earn me in the long run. (I feel obligated to add that my own personal moral value system would keep me from cheating as well, even if I were sure that I could go entirely undetected forever. But that's a separate point from the one I'm trying to make here.)

I have also had to learn how to nurture and sustain a network. It's not a skill that comes naturally to me, as I'm not much of a joiner of societies, secret or otherwise. I am now constantly looking to find and connect with players whose commitment to maintaining their own reputations is as strong as mine, and whose ability to assess character is demonstrably reliable. Those people are the strong nodes on any network. It's a quality that others naturally recognize, and it is the chief building block of mutual trust and respect.

I don't play in every game to which I'm invited (and, needless to say, I completely avoid anything that is illegal; life is too short and I have too much at stake personally to mess around with that). I rely on my network of resources to help me evaluate the quality and trustworthiness of every new context I explore, and I also put very large stock in my own instinctive reactions to any given scene. I have no difficulty cashing out and leaving the moment I sense something the least bit shady going on. I have no interest in being associated with anything that I even suspect may be dubious in any way. There is always another game to be had on another day, if it comes to that.

Our daily lives are filled with these kinds of communities, subcultures, and affiliations (Kurt Vonnegut called the meaningless ones "granfalloons"). Many of them are out in the open and widely acknowledged and accepted. Many go unspoken, unseen, or unacknowledged, but are nonetheless powerful influences shaping people's lives. Some of them are self-aware and deliberately organized, others are ad hoc or just a case of birds of a feather that find themselves unwittingly flocking together. It is an important part of our identity structure as human beings to know which of these public or secret societies we belong to or wish to belong to (or not!), and an important part of our self-image and self-esteem to be aware of our standing within those entities. The explosion of social-networking software is demonstrating quite clearly just how important this stuff is in our lives.

When my mother died, I discovered the existence of a secret society, a bizarre kind of club that I had never had any reason to know about before. It was the unheralded, largely unrecognized cohort of people who had lost a parent. Suddenly I had something vitally in common with total strangers; we shared something fundamental, something life-altering. While I never formalized my understanding of this new community (through joining a grief support group, for example), becoming aware of my membership opened my eyes to the vast web of unlabeled commonalities that are woven through human society. It was my first step toward learning to value them as well, because I quickly realized that acknowledging and sharing with others my membership in the Society of Half-Orphans was actually helpful to me.

So look around you. Learn to see the ties that bind people together. Make conscious decisions about the ones you want to cultivate and participate in. And prune away those links and connections that conflict with your own sense of honor, that don't reinforce your idea of who you really are or wish to be, and that fail to respect the fullness of your personhood or that of others.

Because your networks are not separate from who you are.

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